Experiencing Elcho

Experiencing Elcho

Stephanie Gidney tells the story of one MAF family on an Aboriginal island

The heat is blistering as we sit on the veranda at former MAF Pilot David Pett's home on Elcho Island, Arnhem Land.

He's telling me about life here on the island when we are interrupted by a lady who wants to book a MAF plane for a funeral ceremony. She pays David, but he has no receipt to give her at that moment.

MAF Pilot David Pett sitting with 2 women.

Her reply speaks volumes, 'I always trust you.'


Elcho Island lies one mile off the coast of Australia's Northern Territory. It hosts the largest Yolŋu community in east Arnhem Land, and was home for the Pett family for 8 years.

The community was established in 1942, after Japanese planes bombed nearby Milingimbi, and many Yolŋu fled to Elcho. Later, in 1979, the atmosphere was significantly shaped by spiritual revival. Many Yolŋu were transformed by the Gospel.

David, with his wife Jen and teenage sons Graham and Jonathan, were among the 5% of Balanda (non-indigenous) who made up the 2,500 population.

When they arrived, it was to a world they weren't quite expecting. Dust, noise and harsh, blistering heat.


The value of relationship in Yolŋu society cannot be underestimated. Everyone is related and addressed by a relationship name. The Petts soon began to uncover the open hearts of these people, revealing a warm and rugged beauty.

'We were adopted into their kinship system so they knew how to relate to us,' David explains. 'Jen and I both have different "older sisters" who adopted us. Without adoption, it's hard to be accepted.

Mary Nandoma and Sandra Wangarr of CSIS.

'We asked our supporters to pray for appropriate adoptions, because it would set the tone for our time here. God answered by having two strong Christian families take us under their wing.'


But life on Elcho has been very different for their sons Graham and Jonathan who have spent their teenage years on the island. 'The cultural differences and expectations are so different, it's been hard for them to make connections with their peers.' admits David.

Arnhem Land can also be difficult for MAF staff. Pilots start work before the community rises, making it hard for them to fully take part in village life.

An aboriginal woman and her baby arrive at Elcho.

In this isolated place, there are many births but also many deaths. 'People are so closely related that every death on the island affects about half the community,' David says. Life is heavily influenced by funeral ceremonies, which have to be sequenced throughout the year, each lasting eight to ten days. 'It can be a sad place to be', he admits.

'Already another funeral has been booked in during our conversation.'


Although they are largely dependent upon welfare payments from the Australian government, western culture is relatively new to the Yolŋu, who are traditionally hunter-gatherers. Many still enjoy turtle, wallabies, magpies and mangrove worms.

'People can access manufactured goods but the Elcho culture teaches about the natural world,' David explains. 'For instance, extended families choose to all live together in modern houses, but this can cause illnesses to spread. This just wouldn't be a problem in traditional Yolŋu airy shelters.'

But MAF's work is demonstrating the Gospel in very practical ways. 'We are a carrier of new-borns, bringing new life to the Island. We are an ambulance for the sick, transporting medicines to clinics. We are a hearse for the deceased, taking them to their place of rest. These practical functions mirror Jesus' message of new life, healing and the promise of rest for the weary.'

The Pett family.